CIEE Week 10: Vietnam + Thailand

This week was my program’s Spring Break, so several of my friends and I headed on a whirlwind tour of Vietnam and Thailand. Our first stop was HoChiMinh City, formerly known as Saigon.
HoChiMinh city really enveloped me. As the first city of the week, I dove right in and was reminded of how much I love to travel, to see new places, try new food and meet new people. The city really just made me feel alive and was much more metropolitan than I had anticipated. Downtown Saigon today contrasts sharply with the area on the outskirts where the CuChi tunnels are. These tunnels are from the Vietnam war, and we booked a tour to see them in person. The tunnels were tiny— we walked through some that had been slightly enlarged for tourists and still had to bend over to walk or get down on our hands and knees to crawl through. The tour through the tunnels also featured examples of the traps used  to throw dogs and soldiers off the trail; To say they looked brutal is an understatement.

In order to learn more about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, we headed from the tunnels to the War Remnants Museum. The museum exhibits were primarily photographs taken during and after the war and as such evoked strong emotions, capturing horrific detail, especially regarding victims of Agent Orange, the chemical agent used during the war. Having not read much about it before, I was very struck at how damaging the effects of the chemical warfare were, not only to those living in affected areas but their descendants, others who moved to the area after the war and even the American soldiers who administered the chemical.
We continued our foray through history from HoChiMinh city to Hanoi. Our first stop was former president HoChiMinh’s mausoleum, followed by the museum about his life. The museum was oddly structured, but I did learn that HoChiMinh actually spent time living and working in the U.S. briefly before becoming president. Unfortunately, because we were in Hanoi on a Monday, a lot of the sites were closed, but we were able to get a good feel for the city by walking around all day, dipping in and out of restaurants and coffee shops.
Hands down the best part about Vietnam was the food. One night, we ate two bahn mi’s for dinner because they were so good we literally couldn’t get enough. I will also probably have dreams about the pho we had from a little corner shop our first day in HoChiMinh and if the whole post grad career doesn’t pan out, I might just move to New York and open an egg coffee shop. Egg coffees consist of an egg yolk custard atop black coffee and while it sounds simple, it tastes luxurious. One coffee shop we went to even infused cinnamon into their custard which was next level.
From Hanoi, we hopped on a cruise with Castaways to explore Vietnam’s HaLong Bay up close. HaLong Bay is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which protects its islands and the fishermen whose lives are literally rooted in the bay. Our cruise took us by a fishing village, consisting of rafts and makeshift huts all tied together and guarded by several dogs who balanced precariously on the floating structure. HaLong Bay was the sort of place where my travel companions and I frequently looked around in awe at the life we were living. The bay was just stunning and we had such a fabulous time, soaking up the sun and meeting lots of new people.

After the boat dropped us back on solid ground, we had time for one more egg coffee and then I was off to Thailand. Getting to Bangkok, however, proved to be a little complicated. I had somehow booked my flight for the wrong day, so had to haggle with the airline to put me on my intended flight, otherwise I would be left alone in Hanoi. This whole process drained my poor iPhone 5’s already limited battery so I was left to navigate to my hostel in a foreign city, alone and phone less. Luckily, I had picked up a local SIM card (which they conveniently sell at the airport for $6 USD), so once I successfully reached my hostel I was able to navigate the city and meet up with some friends who had reached Bangkok the day before.
My first day in Bangkok started out slow and relaxed, by the pool of my friend’s AirBnB taking in the view of downtown. In the afternoon, we visited Wat Pho, the temple that houses the famous reclining Buddha. I was worried I wouldn’t be allowed to enter because I had deemed it too hot for pants and as such my knees weren’t covered. Luckily, most of the temples around here provide a wrap either for free or for rent so that people can cover their shoulders and knees out of respect when entering the sacred spaces. The Buddha itself was massive, too large to be seen all at once. The most intricate part were the feet, which have been recently renovated; in fact, according to a nice Frenchman we met who has lived in Bangkok for over 10 years, it’s one of the only aspects of the temple that has been fully renovated. The rest of the temple is restored as it wears but pieces taken for restoration are replaced with copies so as not to disturb the overall effect.
Exhausted after an afternoon wandering through the temple, we hit up a popular local restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. The restaurant’s decoration consists entirely of condoms, from condom lights to condom sculptures of flowers. Beyond the unique theme, the food itself is classic Thai, and I had an incredible green curry for dinner. It was so spicy and flavorful that I drank several spoonfuls of the broth on its own without any rice.

The next day, I met up with another friend from my program in China who was staying at my same hostel. Our first stop was a solid golden Buddha. We spent the rest of the morning wandering through Chinatown to find a pier and a ferry to cross Bangkok’s Chao Praya River. I never thought I would miss Chinese but it was surprisingly comforting to be able to read shop signs and hear words I recognized float by. After several failed attempts to find a cab willing to turn on its meter rather than haggle for a price up front, a friendly tuk tuk driver finally pointed us in the right direction to catch a boat across the river. The wind and water spraying helped us cool down from the intense heat, and it was neat to see the city speed by on our way to Wat Arun. Wat Arun is known for its tall spires but what really stood out to me were the intricate carvings and paintings around the temple. Not only were they still in relatively good condition, but no two statues were exactly alike. I can’t imagine the man power and time that went into building this monument.

From Wat Arun, we hopped in a tuk-tuk back to our hostel, where we cooled down by the pool. I love the eclectic mix of people you meet at hostels; one girl we befriended goes to UBC and happens to be good friends with Alexander Vuckovic, the one guy from my high school who goes there whom I’ve known since I was little. The world can sometimes be so small it’s unreal. At night, a group of us walked to Khao San road, a few blocks from our hostel. During the day, the street is simply a market, but when the sun sets it becomes lively and bustling, with many restaurants and lots of music, even crowds of people dancing in the street. In that way, it reminded me a bit of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
The next morning, for our final day in Bangkok, my friends and I got Thai massages, which definitely live up to the hype. The massage felt like a combination of yoga and massage, as the masseuses would stretch out different parts of our bodies. Julia described it as being kneaded like dough versus being straightened out as is more typical in massages back home. I have never felt so stress free as I did after the massage; it was like all the muscles in my body had been unraveled from several knots. Concerned it was about to rain, we ducked into the hostel for a quick Thai green papaya salad before heading to the floating market. The salad was spicy, tangy and garlicky; the perfect appetizer for the Phad Thai and Thai tea we ate for lunch— after all, we couldn’t leave Thailand without sampling some of its most iconic dishes!
We capped off the week at Bangkok’s Terminal 21: a mall where each floor is designed after a major world city. The concept was really neat and the execution was pretty spectacular, complete with red telephone booths for London and a mini Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco. While not distinctly Thai, meeting up with our friends at Terminal 21 before heading to the airport felt fitting in a way, reflective of all the places we had been and all the places we have yet to go.
Backpacker culture is fascinating. As my friends and I moved from city to city and hostel to hostel this past week, we met so many interesting people who quit their jobs or were taking several months, in some cases, years, to just travel. Some of them were focusing on South and Southeast Asia or just Vietnam, others were following an itinerary similar to ours in reverse, and a few were just trying to see as many places as thoroughly as they could in the time they had. Most of them were in their mid to early 20s but from all over, although a large portion called the UK, Canada or Ireland home. In the past, I hadn’t had much of an encounter with this subset of travelers. While I had stayed in hostels before, I don’t think I was old enough to understand the appeal of dropping everything to wander but now I definitely appreciate the lifestyle.
If I had the option and the means, I’d love to spend a year just traveling like many of the people we met this past week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there just yet, as class started back on Monday 5 hours after our flight landed in Shanghai, bringing me straight back to reality.

CIEE Week 9: Shanghai

This past week was fairly relaxed because we didn’t have class for the first half due to the International Labor Day holiday.
On Monday, I spent the day working on applications for the fall. I’m starting to remember that there’s a life I have to return to all too soon so I’m slowly getting things together. In the evening, I got dinner with my friend Cat and her parents who were in town for the week at a restaurant called Abbey Road down by the French and U.S. embassies. I love meeting people’s parents and family members because I find it so interesting to see where many of their mannerisms or personality traits come from.
On Tuesday, all of my friends were either traveling back to Shanghai or with their parents, so I had a « me » day to relax. After doing the homework I had avoided the rest of the week, I finally watched Black Panther. I know, I know I’m very behind the times, but I was not in the states when it came out. Regardless, so incredible; it lives up to all the hype, reminded me what I love about Marvel movies and got me excited to watch Avengers: Infinity Wars when it is released in China later this month.
On Wednesday, we started classes again. To celebrate being back with all my friends, if only for a few days before Spring Break, I got hot pot with a few of them to catch up. The frequency at which I visit this hot pot restaurant by school might be alarming to some but I’m squeezing in as many hot pot meals as I can before I return to the land of bagels for lunch.
On Thursday, my friend Julia and I joined Cat and her parents down in the art district, m50. While it was advertised to us by a friend as a smaller Wynwood, it reminded me more of Soho, with lots of little galleries and coffee shops. My favorite one we visited was called island6 where all the art was interactive and mixed media.

A funhouse mirrors style exhibition in M50

On Friday, I had a Chinese presentation on the Shanghai city plan. Our current unit is focusing on the history and modern evolution of Shanghai. It’s been neat to learn more about the city I’ve called home for over two months now. While in class we discussed the prevalent dichotomy of old and new that Shanghai exemplifies, I spent the afternoon with my friends Cat, Julia and Julia’s cousin seeing it first hand as we explored QiPu Lu, a  local market selling hand printed t-shirts with a jumble of Chinese characters, Peppa the pig decals and incoherent English sentences. The market is located primarily underground on a street surrounded by dilapidated infrastructure, just one stop away from The Bund, one of Shanghai’s most developed and well known areas.

On The Bund!

The Bund is one of the places that makes me smile every time I visit. Shanghai is such an amazing city and to see its iconic landmarks all at once is always incredible. The city has quickly snuck its way into my heart and while I don’t want to think about having to leave in just a few months, I am excited for my Spring Break sweep through Southeast Asia. Next stop, Vietnam!

CIEE Week 8: Sichuan Province

This week, about a 1/3 of my classmates and I embarked on a tour of Sichuan province. The trip got off to a rocky start when security confiscated my portable charger because it was so old none of the details were legible. Thankfully I have wonderful friends who let me borrow theirs to keep my poor old iPhone 5 alive enough to snag a few pics of the trip.
We arrived in Chengdu Monday afternoon and promptly hopped on a bus with our Australian tour guide to the Wolong Panda Research Center. Up in the mountains, the area was beautiful and the cool free air was a welcome respite from the ever present layer of smog in the big cities. That night, our bus driver taught us how to play MahJong, a traditional Chinese game that I’m told resembles the card game Gin. Our hotel had these fancy tables that shuffled the tiles for us but mahjong can be played anywhere with a flat surface; you’ll often see groups of elderly men and women gambling and playing ferociously in Chinese parks.  The premise of the game is simple: make three sets of three (either three of a kind or a sequence of the same pattern/suit) and one matching pair. Everyone takes turns drawing tiles but the twist is in the ability to steal the most recently discarded tile if it completes one of your sets. After a few rounds of MahJong we wandered down into the nearby town which consisted of two convenience stores, one hotel/restaurant and a KTV. Naturally, we settled on the KTV (what the Chinese call karaoke). The place had a limited selection of English songs but between some old Tswift and James Blunt, we had a great time. As most of you know, I love karaoke (even went to a Karaoke Bar with my parents for my 21st) so KTV with my new friends helped fill the Wok n Roll shaped hole in my heart.
The next day (Tuesday) was our first full day in Wolong aka PANDA TIME (you better believe this broad from Atlanta was humming Desiigner all day). We spent the day volunteering at the Panda Base. First, we split into groups to clean their enclosures which meant scooping the panda poop. Surprisingly, this wasn’t as gross as it sounds, mostly because panda poop is essentially processed bamboo with occasional bits of carrots. To clean and interact with the pandas, the center made us wear these oversized overalls that had us looking like we came straight from an Industrial Revolution-era factory. Having paid our dues and cleaned all the enclosures in the breeding area, we got to feed the pandas. Watching the pandas eat was lowkey mesmerizing. Some of their mannerisms were so human-like; to get to the bamboo shoots the pandas rip the sheaths off with their teeth. In addition to bamboo, the panda diet consists of carrots, apples and these multigrain based cakes, which we also learned how to make. While we were reminded time and time again throughout the day that pandas are beasts, the babies lazing about in treetops and rolling around in the mud were adorable, and it was so cool to see them up close.

Sleepy panda does a yawn

According to our trip itinerary, the next morning in WoLong was reserved for a hike in the nearby mountains. Having climbed TaiShan, I was anticipating quite the trek but it turned out to be a rather chill stroll along very muddy paths. While the weather was brisk, the scenery was beautiful and we made some goat friends, I realized I prefer hikes with a goal or a destination rather than what was essentially just an hour walk. Following our hike, we piled back in our trusty Yak Tourist bus and headed to our next destination, the “old town” of ShangLi. What was supposed to be a straightforward three hour bus ride turned into quite the adventure. First, on the road to ShangLi we were informed that a mudslide the night before had caused a buildup of debris, so we received a police escort to guide us through. At one point, we were all asked to empty the bus and walk along the road; to be honest, it was nice to stretch our legs and get a break from the stuffy bus while admiring the pretty awe-inspiring valley we’d stumbled upon.
Once we’d crossed the mudslide and made it to ShangLi, we were informed that the military had recently set up a base nearby and as such, no foreigners were allowed to stay in the town. Undaunted but momentarily without a place to sleep for the night, we forged on to explore ShangLi while we could. The town was relatively small and touristy but provides us with the opportunity to have our first “authentic” Sichuanese meal. For dinner, I enjoyed Ma Po Tofu, a classic, and fried sesame balls for dessert. 10/10 would recommend.
We still had a lot of time after dinner as we waited for our teachers to inform us where we’d be spending the night, so we joined a circle of dancing locals, much to their amusement. Once the sun had set, we made it back to the bus with a new hotel in Ya’an as our destination. But as luck would have it, the local authorities decided nighttime was the perfect time to start construction to clear the debris from the mudslide, causing a long winding line of cars at a stand still on the side of a mountain. While we waited for over an hour, a few of my friends and I played music from a portable speaker to pass the time. Finally, we reached our hotel near midnight. My roommate for the trip, Cat, and I fell asleep to a CCTV broadcast on human rights abuses in a Louisiana prison. Just state-run media things!

Picking tea — peep the fashionable waist basket

The next morning, refreshed from a good night’s sleep and ready to leave ShangLi in our wake, we drove up into the mountains once more. MengDing Mountain is home to the oldest tea factory in the region. Armed with wicker baskets, we were sent into the never ending rows of bushes down in the valley to pick green tea leaves. Once we had amassed a collective basket worth of leaves amongst the 30 of us students, we trudged back up the mountain to prepare the tea for consumption. Unlike black tea, green tea is not fermented. Instead, the fresh leaves are dried in a large wok. Our tea master kneaded the leaves with his bare hands in the wok three time, with the heat increasing each time. The fresh tea was very soothing; prior to coming to China, I wasn’t a huge fan of green tea and preferred to stick to black or masala tea. However, Chinese green tea is fairly tasty and is supposed to be very good for one’s complexion and digestion, as a bonus.

From MengDing we headed to our final city, Chengdu. Somehow, our itinerary only allowed for one night in the city, so I was determined to fit in as much sightseeing as possible. Upon learning we’d have a few hours of free time in Chengdu, I had done a bit of online digging to find out what was worth visiting. The internet suggested the combo of WuHou Temple and JinLi street, a suggestion our teachers had also partially echoed, so there we went. The temple was surprisingly large and peaceful, with beautiful little gardens and imposing statues. The temple backed into JinLi street, where vestiges of the old Chengdu remained.

My friends and I at WuHou Temple

Before arriving, my main goal for the trip was to try authentic hot pot in the region where it originated. Luckily, one of my friends was equally inclined which is how we ended up at a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu ordering the spiciest broth and asking them to add chilies to it. For those of you who’ve never had it, hot pot is essentially the Chinese version of fondue, where you choose a base and then order a combination of vegetables / meat to dip and cook in the broth. What I realized is that the unique thing about Sichuan spice is it’s more mouth numbing than what you’d typically characterize as spicy. It was quite the experience and to be honest, I’d happily do it again.
As we were waiting to clear security at the airport the next day, several of my friends remarked that were excited to get back to Shanghai and that they couldn’t wait to go home. It was the first time I remember hearing anyone on my program refer to Shanghai as home and it really made my heart swell.
On Saturday, I celebrated the latter half of Georgetown day with Will, the other Georgetown student still in Shanghai. We wandered through the park behind campus, which was a lot bigger than I had imagined. The park was full of little Chinese kids checking out the aquarium, a large chorus rehearsal and several groups of elderly adults practicing Tai Chi; to my sorrow, no mahjong tournaments were underway. After a quick hot pot brunch #SorryNotSorry, my friend Will and I checked out QiBao, an ancient town located conveniently just a few stops away from campus on the Shanghai metro.

QiBao’s iconic bridge

Being back in Shanghai feels right, and settling back into the comfortable routines and walking patterns was much needed. I shocked myself by how much I missed it even after just a week away.
image1(1)I’m excited to spend the rest of my long weekend for International Labor Day exploring parts of the city I have yet to see; I started with a Sunday afternoon trip to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery downtown. In my Business Chinese class, we have been learning about how Starbucks has developed a new culture in China, so it was neat to see that in action at the two-story behemoth of a building that was jam packed with locals and tourists alike. In addition to the classic coffee drinks for which it’s known, this Starbucks also has a full bakery selling fresh bread, a cold brew bar, a Teavana station and an actual bar serving cocktails, beer and wine. Unlike your average Starbucks, this one roasts its own China-grown coffee beans and sells t-shirts, several coffee related products, water bottles, bags etc. Even as someone who isn’t a dedicated Starbucks consumer, it was still really cool to experience. Despite some recent issues, you’ve got to hand it to Starbucks for the ambiance they create in every store; it’s what my teacher swears enticed the Chinese market, and by the size of the crowds lining up to spend an afternoon eating drinking and soaking in the Starbucks experience, I’d say he’s probably right.
On Sunday, I also had the opportunity to grab a home cooked Indian meal with some friends of a family friend who have been in Shanghai for over 10 years. While the food itself was beyond nice, it was especially interesting to hear about their experiences living in Shanghai. As someone who keeps saying I don’t think I could live here because I’d constantly stick out, it was reassuring to hear that even if the feeling of being an outsider never fully goes away, it is possible for someone who looks like me to create a life for themselves in this city.
The prospect of returning to Shanghai for a longer period of time gets more and more appealing, especially as my remaining time here begins quickly slipping away. Somehow, I’ve got only a month and half left! Brb while I slurp up all the hot pot I can before I leave.

CIEE Week 6: Shanghai

As much fun as it was exploring a new region of China last week, it feels good to be back in Shanghai. Getting out of the cab outside the school gates and hearing the familiar jingle of the on-campus grocery store as we walked by, I felt a sense of home coming, like I do every time I get back to Georgetown after a break.


Unfortunately, getting back from a break also means returning to the reality of school. This week, we had class on Friday to make up for what we missed on Tomb-Sweeping day. What with all the traveling and the full five day week, not to mention the start of midterms, I was feeling pretty tired by the time Friday rolled around. But, after Chinese class, I rallied to do some sightseeing and explore some of the areas of Shanghai I had yet to see, starting with the Propaganda Poster Art museum.

Located in the basement of an apartment complex, this tiny private museum houses several Chinese propaganda posters from different pivotal moments in the country’s history. Unlike the propaganda I’ve seen in train stations and on billboards since I’ve gotten here, these posters are less about touting Chinese values or encouraging certain types of behavior but more political and reflective of the tense relations China has had during periods of conflict with other nations, especially the U.S. Several of the posters depicted the U.S. as barbaric, old, greedy men; it was fascinating to see America and certain key moments in history from a Chinese perspective.
After the propaganda museum, I had wanted to check out one of the modern art museums but a spontaneous downpour had other plans. Caught umbrella-less downtown, my friends and I headed to an underground area called Found 158 near the expat neighborhood, which was full of multicultural restaurants, including the best pizza I’ve had in China so far.
One of the interesting aspects of being in China is how my craving for certain foods has changed. On Thursday, the weather got cold and gray out of the blue, and all I wanted to eat was hot pot, which I had only had maybe once before in my life prior to coming here. I’ve now made it my mission to identify good hot pot places in D.C./Georgetown, so if anyone has any suggestions, let me know! Additionally, earlier this week, I took my roommate to an Indian restaurant because she had never had Indian food and because I wanted a change of pace from my steady diet of dumplings and noodles. I never thought I’d reach a point in my life where I wasn’t in the mood for noodles but somehow, there we were.
My feelings about food aside, this was a fairly normal week. As is often the case, I feel like I’ve settled into a comfortable routine just in time for the full brunt of midterms to shake everything up starting this Monday.
In honor of all the plans I had this week that didn’t pan out and the great time I had regardless, the song of the week is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, as a personal reminder that sometimes, the best days and the best moments are unplanned, like stumbling upon an I <3️ Shanghai sign after walking for an hour to find a specific restaurant.
While photographically it’s hard to be sure, even when it rains or I have midterms, I really do love Shanghai! 

CIEE Week 5: Tomb Sweeping Extravaganza

Ni howdy,
I am fresh off of an extra long weekend, courtesy of Tomb-Sweeping day, a national holiday during which Chinese families go home to visit and clean the tombs of their ancestors. Seeing as I have no ancestors in China to pay respects to, I decided to use the five day weekend as a chance to do a little exploring around China.
Despite a solid two hours of sleep on Thursday morning, my friends and I somehow managed to make our 7 A.M. train to Qingdao for the start of our adventure in Shandong province. Fun fact: Shandong is often considered the birthplace of dumplings (饺子 or 水饺 for those in the know), which totally definitely didn’t factor into our decision making when selecting our trip destinations.
Upon arrival in Qingdao, we trekked across the city for a few hours, ending up at the large pink balls which house the observatory tower with a rotating view of the whole city. From above, Qingdao looks almost more European than Chinese,  with the red tile roofs that remain a subtle reminder of the city’s former German occupants.

A view of Qingdao from above

 Walking around Qingdao worked up quite an appetite so we ducked into the first restaurant we saw with a sign proclaiming they sold dumplings. While at first we thought it was actually someone’s house it turned out to be a delicious restaurant that served classic homemade steamed dumplings and a variety of fresh seafood (a plus for the rest of my non-vegetarian traveling companions). The next morning, we toured the Tsingtao museum/brewery to learn about one of the most popular beers in China and spent the rest of the day wandering downtown and eating as many dumplings as we possibly could before heading to our next destination.

The city of Tai’an in the distance as seen from the climb up

We arrived in Tai’an around 10 pm at night, only to find out that the hostel we booked online had apparently been closed for two years. After a slight moment of a panic in which our cab driver circled aimlessly, probably vowing to never pick up Americans ever again, we hit up the closest hotels in the area. The first one we visited was already full but the second had space, so we booked one room

for all six of us. Six college students in one hotel room is not the easiest fit but we managed, going to sleep almost immediately after checking in. Originally, our plan had been to climb the nearby mountain, Mount Tai or Tai Shān, at night to see the sunrise from the summit, but following our chaotic arrival to the city, we pushed back our start time in favor of some sleep. In hindsight, best decision we could have made.

One of the temples along the mountain

Even during the day, the climb was fairly strenuous, taking us about five hours to surmount the several flights of near-vertical stairs and reach the summit. However, after the amount of food I consumed in Qingdao, it felt great to get some exercise. Luckily, the weather was beautiful, and the view from the top was definitely worth it; I can totally see why it’s a UNESCO world heritage site.

Small Tara, Big Mountain

By the time we reached the end of the hike, my friends and I were blasting pump-up music and singing, much to the shock of the locals climbing alongside us, who were primarily surprised to see foreigners had made it so far up the mountain. Because our feet were slightly sore/jelly-adjacent after the ascent, we took the overpriced cable car down and grabbed a quick bite to eat before jumping on a train to our next destination — Qufu.
Qufu is known for being the home town of Confucius, so tourism oriented around him seems to be the main focus of what is otherwise a  sleepy, fairly small town. For example, my travel buddies and I think our hostel, located a mere five minutes from the city’s main tourist attraction, was no more than an addition to a family’s house; the bedroom for the son of the owners was across the hall from my friend’s room and the whole place was locked when the family went to sleep until 6 A.M.  My friends and I were definitely a rare sight for most of the locals; the owner of the noodle place we hit for lunch even filmed us exclaiming positively about his food so keep your eyes peeled for my breakout acting role, coming soon to a WeChat near you. Additionally, I am pretty sure I was the first person of color most of the city’s residents had ever seen, as evidenced by another restaurant owner who told me I didn’t look like I was from America as well as the middle-aged woman who reached out and wiped at my skin in shock as we passed each other entering the temple.
The Confucius temple in Qufu is known as one of three great ancient building complexes, and while most of it has been restored, some of the original temple structure remains.  In addition to the temple, we saw Confucius’s former residence and his tomb. The park surrounding the tomb was lush, with small purple flowers in full bloom. It was nice to have a moment to just meander and enjoy the beautiful warm weather after the other jam packed days. Once we were done, we called the tour bus to take us to the train station; for just a few extra kuai, we ended up with the entire bus to ourselves, which was pretty neat.

The whole travel crew at the Tomb of Confucius)

While we saved money on transportation in some cities, like Qufu, young dumb and broke is probably one of the best ways to sum up this trip. Despite the low prices for food and drinks in China, the relative lack of ATMs compatible with my American bank, combined with the oftentimes ridiculous prices of visiting these tourist sites and spotting my friends who don’t have WeChat pay make it such that I have blown through my cash this weekend and will be subsiding off of 4 kuai jian bings (egg pancakes) for the foreseeable future. It’s worth it though because spending a long weekend with some of my closest newfound friends has led to some ridiculous shenanigans and dumb inside jokes, most of which I cherish deeply.  And most of all, this weekend has reminded me not only of just how wild and unpredictable it is to travel as a young adult, especially in a country like China, but also of how much I love exploring new cities and wandering beyond the comfort of my designated home base.

CIEE Week 4: Nanjing

Happy Easter, for those of you who celebrate! To the rest of you, happy Sunday! I spent Good Friday like any good Catholic school girl* would, exploring Buddhist temples.

(One of the many buddhas at the Jade Buddha temple, however, not one of the jade buddhas, which I was not allowed to photograph)

Some of my more religious friends actually tried to attend mass on Friday, so I tagged along, curious to experience church in China because, why not? Unfortunately, English services here are hard to come by, improperly publicized and in niche locations so our plan quickly fizzled out. Instead, we ambled between neighborhoods, eventually settling upon a small restaurant named Abbey Road, where we indulged in some fondue for dinner. I can’t tell you how excited I was to taste real cheese, but if you’ve met me, you can probably guess.

I blinked and somehow I’ve been in Shanghai for a month. To cap off these jam-packed, culturally immersive past four weeks, CIEE (the organization running my study abroad program) took my classmates and I on weekend trips to big cities within our province. I ended up in Nanjing, a city just two hours west of Shanghai. Nanjing was previously the capital of China, on several occasions; in English, the city’s name literally translates to South capital.

Throughout China’s history, Nanjing has borne witness to several key events, from the beginnings of Dr. Sun Yatsen’s revolution to the infamous Nanjing Massare. We managed to pack a lot into two days, starting with Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum, followed by a monument honoring the Ming emperor who first set up Nanjing as the country’s capital.

(ABOVE: Cheesing at Sun Yatsen’s mausoleum; BELOW: Iconic stone camels at the Ming mausoleum)

At night, we took a brief boat tour to admire the light installations up for the lantern festival. After a full day of walking, we treated ourselves to some local street food, culminating in this towering mango milkshake masterpiece with a layer of cream on top of fresh mango juice, topped with mango slices and one scoop each of mango and vanilla ice cream. If none of my post-grad plans pan out, catch me bringing these bad boys to the U.S.

(ABOVE: My friends Julia, Suzy and I with our cherished mango creation; BELOW: Some of the lights along the river. Not pictured, the several Chinese ladies who crashed our boat, kicking our several students along with our tour guide in the process, and kept telling us to quiet down)

Sunday morning, we soaked up the sun and heavy 污染 at Xuan Wu lake, just across from our hotel, before hopping on our trusty tour bus over to the Nanjing Massacre memorial. In remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were raped and murdered at the hands of the Japanese in 1937, this museum was a profound and emotional experience. I’m constantly struck by the deeply personal and different ways that people decide to honor and remember tragedy. The memorial reminded me of the Holocaust museum in D.C.; in my opinion, both institutions effectively blend personal narrative, external media and historical context to convey the depth of the tragedy. Prior to coming to Shanghai, I knew very little about the massacre, so it was powerful to learn more about such a pivotal time in China’s history.

(Outside the memorial)

In addition to expanding my cultural and historical awareness of the country I’m calling home for the next few months, the weekend trip was a nice opportunity to continue my ongoing tradition of weekend exploration. Additionally, since we signed up for these trips before reaching Shanghai, the mix of participants in each city kindly forced us to branch out beyond the initially-formed friend groups and get to know people not in any of our classes. If there’s one thing studying abroad in high school taught me, it’s that there’s nothing like several hours together in a bus to forge friendships.

With this latest trip, I have now knocked off all three cities on my initial China bucket list that I cobbled together before arrival— Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing. I’m excited to add more train tickets to my growing collection next week as my friends and I head North to the Shandong province for the upcoming Tomb Sweeping holiday. Until then, I plan to recharge and catch up on my sleep as much as possible.


* NB: To clarify, going to Georgetown, a Jesuit university, makes me a Catholic school girl. Also, after 13 years of non-denominational Christian education, including several years of Bible class, I’m feeling qualified enough to claim this title. #SorryNotSorry


CIEE Week 3: Shanghai + Hangzhou

Happy first week of Spring (technically)!
No one warned me that Shanghai would get cold. Granted, we aren’t at nor’easter snow day levels but the start of this week felt much closer to D.C weather than the Asian winters I’ve experienced in India.


Traditional tea cups from tea city filled with a peach tea on the left and green tea on the right

This week, my Chinese class took a field trip to TianShan, also known as the tea city, which was exactly what I needed on a rainy Monday morning. Located just two bus stops from campus, “tea city” is actually a maze of shops dedicated to Chinese tea culture, with store fronts selling hundreds of different kinds of tea harvested from all across China as well as artisanal handcrafted tea pots and cups. While I’m definitely a big tea drinker, I usually stick to black and herbal teas. But in China, green tea is the thing, and to my surprise, the LongJing Lu Cha we tasted was my favorite, followed by a Ginseng Oolong that the tea vendor introduced to us as a favorite of most foreigners. The tea not only woke me up but also helped soothe my throat which had started feeling the side effects of Chinese air pollution.


West Lake

Luckily, as the week went on, the weather improved enough for us to venture outdoors, just in time for this week’s Friday adventure: Hangzhou. From Shanghai, Hangzhou is a little further than Suzhou (where I went last week), but it’s still only a 1 hour train ride. In a shocking twist of events, this time around we didn’t miss any of our trains, making it to Shanghai around noon. After grabbing some fried rice from one of the many restaurants located surprisingly in the bowels of the train station, we set off for Hangzhou’s main attraction, West Lake. Rumored to have been one of Mao’s favorite spots, the enormous West Lake is a natural breath of fresh air in a country that often feels stiflingly industrial. Despite the ever present 污染, we still enjoyed a leisurely boat ride on the lake to reach the lush island at its center. On the island, we saw the “Three Gourds” which are known for their presence on China’s 1 kuai bill (a rare relic these days, in the era of WeChat and AliPay). From there, we hopped on another boat to the LeiFeng pagoda.


The Three Gourds with some Mao peeking through

 The pagoda towers impressively above the lake and provided a neat view of its expanse. Having walked over 8 miles, we were ready to sit down and eat, but the universe had other plans. Unable to snag a cab despite hailing aggressively and trying to call a DiDi (the Chinese version of Uber), we ended up walking and biking, past the PLA headquarters and huge propaganda posters, to reach Lu Cha, a restaurant my Chinese tutor had recommended we try while in Hangzhou. Energy levels running low, we welcomed the air conditioning and opportunity to sit down while tasting the restaurant’s special green tea flavored tofu. Overall, while Suzhou had more sights, I quite enjoyed the more leisurely picturesque vibes of Hangzhou. The sun peeking through definitely helped!
On Saturday, the school organized a field trip to the local marriage market. In People’s Square Park, hundreds of umbrellas lined the walkways, each representing an eligible Chinese boy or girl. On the umbrellas were sheets of paper outlining the individual’s birth year and month, profession, educational background and occasionally height + weight as well. Some umbrellas were unmanned, others watched carefully by mother’s and a few fathers. We were asked not to take pictures for the privacy of the individuals whose information was on display. It was an interesting experience, one that felt both serious and alive, as parents circled in search of the perfect match for their 30 year-old children.  After the market, a few my friends and I swung by the Jing’an Sculpture Garden to soak in the sun and admire the flowers in full bloom.
Sunday was a bit more relaxed, as I firmly believe all Sundays should be. My roommate QianWen and I visited an ancient art exhibit at the Shanghai Museum, the biggest in the city. While waiting in line (China is all about the 排队文化), we talked about the differences in dating culture between the U.S. and China. She said that the marriage market I visited was a tool many families still used today and that parent-led set ups were common because the phenomenon of young adults not finding anyone organically was increasingly prevalent. We also talked about dating apps, and I think it’s interesting that the modern evolution of the age-old quest for love is one thing that transcends cultural differences.
After almost a month, life in Shanghai has settled into a comfortable routine so much so that sometimes I forget I’m abroad in a foreign country. Of course, in reality that’s not something China ever let’s you forget. I will never not stand out here but it’s comforting to know I can navigate daily life in a city that operates almost exclusively in a language that is not my first or even second. They don’t call it cultural immersion for nothing, I guess.
That’s all the self-indulgent reflection for this week. See you all in April!